I recently went to another conference, this time in Cappadocia. I’d heard about the fantastic landscapes there but was not prepared for how spectacular they actually are. An hour sitting in the sun drinking Turkish coffee with some friends and overlooking this view was a great way to relax after my plenary (on ‘Critical issues in professional learning’).
Conferences are a good professional experience in so many ways, not least for the networking opportunities they provide (this time I even met two language educators from Slovenia, where I now live). Observing how others present always provides learning opportunities too. One area of potential learning that conferences generally fail to address, though, is the development of the presenter. We do not become better presenters simply through repeated practice – we need feedback on that experience (this applies even to reflective individuals who are adept at self-evaluation). Unfortunately, for many presenters the experience of talking about their research at a conference involves planning and delivery but no post-experience feedback and reflection (perhaps beyond supportive words of congratulation from friends and colleagues). This model does not support speaker professional development. Without awareness of how we might present more effectively, the style of our next presentation is likely to be very much like the last. I am reminded of this gap at every conference I attend. The question, then, is there anything that can be done about it?
One option is for conference organisers to create feedback mechanisms within the programme so that the audience can provide comments on the sessions they attend. This would need to be kept quick and simple – delegates are not going to provide detailed comments on every session they attend. But perhaps one comment under ‘Worked well’ and one under ‘Think about’ at the end of each session and placed in a box on the way out of the room might be feasible. Speakers could even organise this themselves.
Speakers can also solicit feedback by providing their e-mail address at the end of the talk and explicitly asking the audience to send them any suggestions they think would help them in future presentations.
Speakers can, prior to their talk, also find a trusted (but sufficiently critical) colleague and ask them to attend and make some notes on the talk. These can be discussed afterwards, perhaps over a coffee. Or, at the end of the talk, the presenter might ask someone in the audience if they could sit down with them for five minutes to discuss the presentation (choosing wisely here is important though). Another option is for speakers to arrange for their talk to be video recorded; this can then be reviewed by a colleague at a later date, followed by a discussion with the speaker.
For these processes to be productive, presenters need to want and be open to feedback. Those providing the feedback also need to understand the importance of being specific and constructive in what they say (some useful advice on providing feedback generally is available here). Feedback need not be complex; for example, a very common problem amongst novice and experienced presenters alike is too many PowerPoint slides with too much text on each; making speakers aware of this issue and how it impacts negatively on a presentation can make a significant difference to future performance (much advice on the use of PowerPoint generally is available on-line). And, of course, feedback should also allow for positive issues to be highlighted too – perhaps before areas of improvement are discussed. It’s important to note too that feedback is not just for novices; even accomplished presenters can benefit from thoughtful feedback.
There is of course much that we as presenters can do before a talk to improve its quality and the 20 tips available here and the 10 here are useful in that respect. My earlier blog on conference presentations at http://tinyurl.com/p6pgzm6 is also worth revisiting. However, supportive and constructive feedback after a talk is an essential part of developing as a presenter, and it would be good if conference organisers considered ways of creating opportunities for this and speakers made getting feedback a specific part of their strategy when they present at an event.
Do you have any thoughts and experiences on this issue and in particular on how speakers can create or be given opportunities to reflect on and learn from their experiences of presenting at a conference?